Einstein, Quantum Mechanics, God

I’d really like to know how some science-related myths enter the public consciousness, sort of like urban legends. There is a lot that concerns physics and religion that, whenever I run across them, I have to wonder how people come up with this stuff. And when I was browsing through an interview recently, I ran across two of my favorites within a couple of sentences of each other.

One has to do with Einstein. Just about everyone knows of him as an iconic science-genius with frizzy hair — rarely anything about his work in physics. In fact, one of the more widespread items of “common knowledge” about Einstein seems to be that he favored religion, believed in a conventional God and all that. It’s not exactly true — Einstein indulged in some handwaving quasi-Platonist God-talk, but also rejected any personal God. But what’s even more interesting is how Einstein gets turned into an authority on religion, when his thoughts on the matter are pretty second-rate, honestly. The urban legend of a devout Einstein is out there, regardless of its various inaccuracies, and it’ll never go away.

Then there’s quantum mechanics. I despair of all the times I see people casually using the word “quantum” as an equivalent of magic. The popular reputation of quantum mechanics seems to be that it’s a scientific endorsement of psychic powers, mystical illumination, cosmic wholeness, God, what-have-you. There are some people with physics backgrounds that promote this nonsense (though they should know better), but I don’t think that’s the only reason that particular myth has taken hold. Like the Einstein bit, it serves as legitimation for supernatural belief, helping create the impression that there’s good science behind religion. The Einstein and quantum mechanics myths hang in the air as vague items of common knowledge, the way people know the Earth is round but really have no clue why that is so.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University